Calling communities to engage in National Cancer Moonshot Initiative

May 2, 2016

Defeating cancer – a lofty goal, but no more bold than the idea of putting a man on the moon. When President Obama set forth the charge and launched the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, the scientific community was rallied toward accelerating progress in therapies, diagnosis tools, and prevention tactics.

The NCI is now inviting the public to join the venture, launching a web portal for anyone to come and contribute ideas, concepts, or pathways of study. Many researchers are excited about this partnership with the public and the opportunity for mutual learning and collaboration.

We spoke with Christopher Pennell, Ph.D., associate director for Education and Community Engagement at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, about this new step in the Moonshot Initiative.

What role does the public play in combating cancer?

Probably the most important role the public plays in combating cancer is a direct one: reducing cancer’s risk through prevention and screening.

Another big role is in clinical trials, something qualified patients should strongly consider. These trials contribute directly to our understanding of what therapies work best.

Why is it important for the public to be engaged in discovery?

Dialogue between the public and the scientific community contributes significantly to our greatest cancer therapy aspiration: knowing enough about cancer to control or eliminate it quickly and effectively.

When scientists and citizens are both at the table, the public learns what we know about avoiding cancer, how it arises, and how best to treat it. Meanwhile, those in the laboratory and clinics learn what most concerns patients and their families. It opens the door to new initiatives designed to address public concerns.

What do you suggest for community members who have passion and investment for cancer treatment and cures but perhaps aren’t scientifically inclined?

An applicable phrase here would be, “think globally, act locally.” Start by identifying one thing you can do to alleviate a patient’s or caregiver’s burden, no matter how small it seems. Community members can also support local, statewide, and national non-profit organizations that promote cancer research, as research is what ultimately leads to reducing the burden of cancer.

How can people get involved with supporting research and discovery beyond suggesting scientific ideas?

Community members play a big role in sharing information about cancer prevention, screening, therapy, and patient care. Information is available from local support groups, American Cancer Society chapters, and the Masonic Cancer Center. The more people that have this information, the better off we all will be.

What are some of the most exciting elements for YOU about the Moonshot Initiative?

The most exciting element to me is the potential to draw really bright people to the fields of cancer research and therapy – people who might not otherwise have considered applying their skills to this problem. The more people we have thinking about cancer, the more quickly we’ll reduce the burden of cancer.

It will also provide more resources to those of us in the field already, allowing us to work more quickly and perhaps more daringly.

My hope is the initiative will allow us to soon see a day when cancer is routinely eliminated or relegated to the status of a chronic disease not severely impairing one’s quality of life. Cancer is part of our biology and it will always arise in our population because it is a consequence of genetic mutations. Early detection and intervention are our best hope, and more targeted and efficient therapies to eradicate advanced stage disease.